Pulses and potatoes

Like Holland Dhaka is a very wet place, even now when it is not the rainy season – it is what ties the two countries together: a never ending struggle to control the water.

This morning, after a wonderful Bangla breakfast of pulses and potatoes I realized the sound of water did not come from the 6 floor deep waterfall but from rain.

I waited outside for a driver to pick me up, mesmerized by the water dramas playing themselves out in front of the hotel. The rickshaw drivers looked even more like skeletons with their wet clothes plastered to their emaciated bodies. Most of them had plastic bags tied around their heads, or the thin foamy packing materials our electronics are wrapped in – why the obsessions with dry hair when everything else is soaked?

I was transported in a luxuriously dry car to another part of town that wasn’t very far away as the crow flies; but as the traffic inched forward, one kilometer seemed like a hundred. Despite plenty of extra time we arrived at a meeting already in full swing one hour and a half later.

A large team had assembled in the conference room of a local organization that split off from a USAID project and appears to be doing well on its own, given the nice quarters and the impressive staff. We reviewed last minute logistics, divided tasks and reviewed the ‘technical’ part of the program – that part that is following the protocol. It is strange to have facilitated conversations referred to as technical but that is the lingo here.

I was dreading any further ventures across Dhaka but there were the courtesy visits to be made– we could only do one today.

At the family planning directorate I was warmly welcomed by the line director of the communication unit in his colorful office with slogans, pictures and colorful models gracing the walls. The warm welcome included an ice cream treat, followed by thin vanilla cookies, followed by sweet tea. It is the first time in my life I have received ice-cream during a courtesy visit to a government agency. It has bumped the macchiato served with the compliments of the Ethiopian government to second place.

After our courtesy visit we checked out the venue that is located in a behemoth of a conference center, designed for heads of state and very senior government officials and the kind of meetings such people attend. In the absence of any high officials the fountains were dead and the countless flagpoles stood silently and bare in military rows.

The conference rooms are enormous and smell like conference rooms in warm and wet places – a musty smell that can hopefully be masked by the powerful aircos. We discussed the room set up – protocol first and then a more relaxed layout. It was then I found out that we couldn’t use the walls – this is of course a problem for a design that is based on flip charts  We were able to mobilize 9 rolling boards, white board on one side, pin cushion on the other. It will have to make do.

Another dinner engagement, further uptown, required that I take a rickshaw with one of the wet and wily rickshaw men. When it rains you get to sit under a plastic sheet to put on your lap to cover your legs and my umbrella covered the rest of my body. Rickshaw seats are slanted forward and so it takes some practice to keep from sliding down. I clamped my fingers around the dusty slatts of the awning and hoped for the best. Those three actions (plastic sheet on lap, umbrella in hand and holding on required three arms rather than the two I had available.

I had been a bit sleepy before the rickshaw ride but it perked me right up. I had to hold on for dear life as my man cruised through narrow openings in the congested traffic lanes at breakneck speed.  Occasionally we would hit a bump or pothole with always the risk I would fall out and be ran over by the rickshaws in back of us (a best case scenario as there were also cars all around us).

The friendly hotel staff had assured me that the rickshaw driver knew where we were going. As it turned out he didn’t. He also didn’t speak a word of English. I tried Dari to indicate that we should head to Road 55 but instead he dropped me off at the Westin, in the opposite direction. I could just see how his mind worked: rich white lady goes to rich white hotel.

Eventually I made it to the right place – thank God for cellphones – quite dry thanks to the umbrella and plastic sheet and without falling off the bench. My newfound friends and colleagues were already seated in a stylish Indian restaurant and a waiter was ready to pour me a glass of red or white wine despite the large sign outside that said ‘no alcohol allowed.’  The Moghul cuisine menu made me a little homesick, if one can call it that, for Afghanistan, with the Persian names of various dishes (sabz bahar, paneer palak, murgh, ghost) streaming back into my consciousness – accompanied by a few deep sighs for remembering the good times of our short life there.

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